Toxic Communities

Trigger warning for emotional abuse

This post over at Amusing Nonsense left a bitter taste in my mouth, but not because of anything he said. Word by word, everything he said seemed pretty accurate and made sense. It’s just that it was a defense of New Atheists, and my sister’s two abusive exes were the first New Atheists I ever met, and that association, for me, will probably always be there.

The comments over there are consistently excellent discussions. On that particular post, a recurring topic was whether or not atheists are in danger of falling into the same traps of groupthink and extremist, mindless passion as most other groups. I don’t think it’s a danger; it’s an inevitability, because I have never met a political subculture where some factions didn’t fall into this trap. Feminists, liberals, queer communities, social justice advocates… every one of these groups that I (proudly) belong to has also contained rather sizable groups of people who I just have to avoid because of horrible petty bullshit.

In all of these cases, I have heard defenses that a person’s feminism/atheism/Christianity/-ism of choice had nothing to do with their overall shittiness, and thus shouldn’t reflect on the group they are a part of. For the most part, I agree with this. Any sufficiently large group will contain some awful people, and the group as a whole shouldn’t necessarily be blamed for this. However, I want to go a little deeper.

When you have someone clever, mean spirited and engaged in some sort of movement, they can often find ways to twist an ideology to serve their own purpose. For example, a New Atheist behavior I frequently saw was using religion as an excuse to separate a newly-deconverted atheist from their former friends. Religious people often come from circles where nearly everyone they know is religious. Often some former friends will cut a friend who lost their faith off, but usually some people will be interested in maintaining a respectful friendship. New Atheists can shame a lowercase new atheist for still having religious ties, or belittle their remaining religious friends to their faces and take said friend’s offense as proof that they are intolerant of atheists and bad, bad people. This is a classic predator tactic; cut the victim from their former support network, so they have no one to help them and may even be completely dependent on the abuser. In certain politically idealistic communities, it is common to have a reflexively derisive attitude towards those unenlightened outsiders, so this kind of behavior may not even be noticed as unusual, while some shy newcomer is being harassed or even beaten up behind closed doors.

Again, this is not a problem of ALL NEW ATHEISTS ARE EVIL!!! It’s an example of how even a good idea can be twisted. (Good ideas like “atheists should be as free to be open about their lack of belief as Christians are about their having-of-belief, and also religion should either get out of the public sector or be willing to share the space with everybody. And that’s actually everybody, not ‘epic Nativity scene plus a menorah in a corner somewhere’ everybody.”) And the trouble is that while communities are great at recognizing abusive tactics when they are shrouded in an ideology that isn’t theirs, they are terrible at recognizing the exact same tactics when the language used is their own.

So what’s the solution to this? I don’t think there’s a perfect one that will eliminate this happening ever. That would be like expecting weeds to not show up in your garden. You can spread down some mulch to minimize it, but sooner or later something will pop up. The only solution is to be aware that it happens, even in your garden. If you’re somebody who has the power to weed, then make sure you check for weeds.

And for those who don’t have that power, let me tell you what I wish somebody had told me and my sister. If you like the ideals that get passed around in a group, but often find yourself feeling belittled, bullied and ignored, or if you’re not but you feel like you constantly have to live up to high standards of behavior in order to not be treated that way, that means you’re in one of those weedy subgroups. Leave. It’s okay. If these ideas are as awesome as you think they are, somewhere out there is a group where people live those ideals without being total assholes.

What to do When You are Skeptical of Someone’s Transition

Every trans person, when they start their transition, has to deal with at least one person who doesn’t quite buy it. Someone will think it’s a phase, or a plea for attention. This is overwhelmingly unlikely to be true. Less than one percent of people who transition go on to regret it; of that number, many don’t even regret it because they are not really trans, but because of the overwhelming prejudice trans people face. I once knew a trans woman who had tried to transition earlier and had to detransition because of how shitty people were. When I met her she was in her fifties and transitioning for the second time.

So it’s a bit surprising that during the year I began my transition, not one but two of my friends also began to identify as FtMs, and then changed their minds. This shaped a lot of my thoughts around this issue, so I thought I should share the story, and what I learned from it.

The first thing I think people should know is that who actually transitioned and who didn’t spectacularly failed to line up with the conventional trans narrative. Hailie and Madison (not their real names) were both significantly more masculine than me. Hailie was a classic butch lesbian, deep voiced, athletic, fond of beer and belching. She had her first crush on a girl back in kindergarten. Madison was bisexual and punkishly androgynous. I am sensitive, shy, artistic and exclusively attracted to other men. I had a lot more people shocked at my coming out as trans than either of them, yet I’m the only one who was really transgender.

Lesson one; you don’t know. There is no way to tell from the outside whether somebody is really transgender or not.

A consequence of the first point is that of the three of us, I received the most resistance to my transition. I was actually kicked out of my house, and stayed with Madison’s family until I could afford my own place. Madison’s family was a little nervous, because she was famous for identity crises, but they were still fully willing to feed, clothe, shelter and love her, as well as provide her access to gender therapy and transition services. Hailie’s family was much the same; nervous but willing to be supportive.

Lesson two; there is a school of thought that says the best way to help trans people is to be a gatekeeper. You need to put a lot of obstacles up to make sure they aren’t just confused or whatever. Insert something vague about tough love here to justify making people prove they are really transgender. That’s bull. People in a supportive environment can still figure that they aren’t really trans. People who are trans don’t need to be picked on.

So what did happen to make Madison and Hailie realize they weren’t trans? Well… mostly nothing. They experimented with gender for a little bit, and they figured it out.

Hailie had been assaulted and raped a short time before she came out as trans. Her sister was worried that this was some big unconscious fight to avoid thinking about the rape, rather than an honest transition. When Hailie insisted this wasn’t the case, her sister backed off.

For a few months, Hailie went by a boy’s name and male pronouns. Then she quietly told me that she was having second thoughts. Then, a while later, she said she wanted to go back to female pronouns. A little while after that she said her sister had been right. Hailie had felt dysphoric because of the physical trauma she had just been through. She had needed something other than the rape to worry about. She wasn’t trans. Honestly, I can think of worse ways to deal.

Madison’s story is a little more complicated. Have any of you ever had the experience of being accused of causing drama, or known people who were accused of it when they were trying to draw attention to legitimately awful stuff? Did that experience make you think that people need to just stop making that accusation, because it seems like it’s only ever used to silence people with real problems? And, after thinking this for a while, did you ever run into somebody who would milk every drop of sympathy to their own advantage, who always had to have the biggest crisis in the room, who was every “you’re just causing drama for your own ends” accusation made real? And you tried really hard to be compassionate, but inside you’re just screaming “you! It’s all because of you! We could just ban the word drama entirely and take everybody in the whole world seriously, if it wasn’t for asshats like you!”

Yeah, I didn’t realize it at first, but after living with her for several months, that was Madison. At first I was hopeful that gender dysphoria was the thing that was wrong with her all along, and being trans would solve all the things, but I did start to suspect something when the only thing she ever did to transition was talk about it. We picked out our new names and talked excitedly about them. I did the work of finding out how to legally change one’s name and print all the documents out. I printed out two copies and left one out for Madison. It stayed on the fridge with a magnet for months and was eventually thrown away. She got her letter from a therapist that would give her access to hormone therapy, and the name of a good clinic. I got my prescription filled as quickly as possible. She never did. Her transition only existed when she was coming out tearfully to somebody, at which point she could use their sympathy to control them, of course.

Her parents handled it perfectly. Instead of obstructing her transition, they gave her responsibility over it. She had a part-time job, and with her parent’s insurance she could afford to use pay for co-pays and fees to change her name herself. She had a driver’s license and could drive to doctor’s appointments herself. They gave her all those responsibilities.

Lesson three; if obstruction is the worst of both worlds, responsibility is the best of both worlds. A genuinely trans person will see responsibility as a wonderful gift and act of trust (provided you aren’t giving them so much “responsibility” they don’t have a chance to actually transition. This level will vary depending on the age of the trans person, but you know, use common sense). For a person who isn’t trans, realizing they like the idea of transitioning more than the work of it can help them figure it out.

And, piggybacking on that, lesson four; I think probably most people who think they are trans for a while, when they aren’t really, are in some way either a Hailie or a Madison. Either they are going through something else that is awful and need some understanding and respect, or they are that once-in-a-while asshole… in which case what they’re really after is for you to not understand them, so they can blow up and use that to control you. Show them understanding and respect from the start, and they’ll have nothing to work with. They’ll have to move on to something else.

I don’t know how people realize what their gender identity is, any more than I know how you know you’re in love, or that your new house feels like home. And I say that, having been through all those experiences. I just know that when you know, you know, except once in a while you think you know but you don’t. But hey, those moments of not knowing that you don’t know are just part of being human, and they don’t generally last as long as really knowing you know. You know?

Anyway…

I wonder at how afraid we are to let people experiment with their gender identities. There’s no harm in it. I think obstructing experimentation causes a lot more confusion than just letting people play around, not to mention pain for people who genuinely transgender.

So in case I wasn’t clear, if you aren’t sure whether or not someone’s transgender, just respectfully back off. You might be right, you might be wrong, but either way it’s their job to figure it out.

Empowerment

Around last spring, I made a decision that kindness was going to be one of the primary ways I evaluated new friends or potential partners. In the past it had been fairly low on the list, with features like cleverness, shared beliefs, or shared lifestyle ranking higher. I followed through on that decision: my primary social circle now is one of deeply kind and compassionate people, and I’ve never been happier.

Recently it’s occurred to me that I want to add a second criterion to my Must Haves list for an intimate relationship: empowering. Does this person, in the way they interact with others, habitually empower others? And more particularly, do they interact with me in ways that are empowering to me?

When I talk about empowering others, I mean helping people to feel stronger, more capable, more worthy and able to be in charge of their own life. A person can be very kind and very, very disempowering: every “white knight” or “white savior” story is the story of someone kindly taking care of someone else in a way that reinforces that person’s dependence on the knight/savior.

Even the notion of empowerment can be a trap, because empowerment by definition has to come largely from within. Once you start thinking of empowerment as something you give them, you’re back in dependency territory. A lot of empowering others, then, is mostly in avoiding disempowering behaviors, although I think there are also ways one can be concretely empowering.

Empowerment has a lot of methods and a lot of facets. It can be simply telling someone, “I believe in you; you’ve got this.” It can be listening to someone talk through their thoughts until they’ve found their own solution. It can be assuring someone that you will love and be there for them no matter what decision they make.

To feel empowered in a relationship, I need my partners to believe these things, and demonstrate the beliefs through action:

– I am fully capable of deciding what is best for myself and my life.

– I am fully capable of learning and growing in areas where I am weak, flawed, or underdeveloped.

– The values and priorities I have set for myself are valid, and are more relevant to my decisions than any values or priorities any other person might wish to impose on me.

– Mistakes I make are not signs of fundamental character failings in me, but of habits and traits that I have not yet learned to overcome. They do not indicate that I need someone else to take charge of my life or my growth; they just indicate that I’m a person who has weak spots like any other person.

The essence of empowerment is respecting that the other person has the right and the ability to make decisions about their own life; to determine and pursue their own values; to live and star in their own story. While many of us would agree with these things on principle, we’re quick to draw the conclusion that we know better than the other person in THIS situation; that we have perfectly clear insight into what they need here, and if only we could just show them they’d be so much happier! Empowerment, on the other hand, persistently sets the other person up as the #1 expert on their life, their needs, and their feelings. They are the captain, you are first mate or crew member (when it comes to their problems and their life, of course. You get to be the captain of your own ship!)

It is possible to give advice and guidance in an empowering way, but it is tricky. First and foremost, the advice has to be welcome. Just jumping in with, “Well, here’s what I think/here’s what you should do” when the other person hasn’t asked for your opinion is a way of centering your own perspective, and carries the implication that the other person NEEDS your help whether they want it or not. Prefacing any kind of advice or input with “May I give you some advice?/Would you like to hear my thoughts?” reinforces to both of you that the other person is in charge here. My therapist, who I basically pay to help me figure my life out, makes a habit of asking, “Would you like feedback?” before sharing her advice and perspective.

Second, empowering advice honors the other person’s values and priorities, even when they differ from yours. For example, the importance of blood family and maintaining those ties is different for different people. Some will walk away from a family that consistently treats them badly, some will work hard to stay connected. Empowering advice honors the values of the person making the decision, even if the advice-giver would make a different choice based on their different values. (If your values are so different from the other’s that you have a hard time imagining why they’d make the choices they do, or if you believe their values to be objectively wrong, then you are not well-positioned to give them empowering advice. Better to stick to being the sympathetic, “I’m sorry this is so hard” voice.)

Third, empowering advice frames itself clearly as one option, which the other person gets to take or reject according to their best judgement. Advice that frames itself as, “I have solved your problem, this is what you need to do” is not empowering; it presumes that you know better than they do in this situation. Advice that comes with an unspoken “If you reject my advice, I’ll be hurt” is both disempowering and manipulative. Advice is a gift you give someone, and attaching emotional baggage to it is unfair.

This whole notion of empowerment is still something I’m rambling my way through, and figuring out as I think and write about it. Questions I’m still exploring (and may write about in future) include:

– What are some modes of conflict that are either empowering or disempowering?

– How much diversity is there in what empowers different people? (This might be one for Lane and I to talk through together, since our needs and preferences in intimate relationship power dynamics are very different.)

– If a relationship has had a strong dependency component, when and how do you move it toward a more mutually empowering dynamic?

I’d welcome thoughts on any of these as I continue to think this through.

It’s not me, it’s my body

Ah, the people you meet on OkCupid. I’ve been corresponding recently with a bisexual transwoman who started off with a mention of how she’s been having trouble connecting with both men and women because of her gender identity. She said that she was hoping my interest in human sexuality would make me at least interested in talking to her, and she was right… I know a number of transmen (including my brother and sometime collaborator on this blog), but no transwomen, and I was interested in hearing about her experiences. I wrote back to this effect and commiserated about the difficulties being transgender must pose in dating. She responded with more details about the frustrations she’s had, and as I read it I started to suspect that her difficulties with dating go much deeper than her gender identity.

I’m not disputing the fact that being trans dramatically narrows your pool of dating prospects, and that someone unfamiliar with trans people and trans issues can respond pretty badly, even if they aren’t -phobic per se. But this woman, as best I can tell from a couple of emails, isn’t just trans — she’s deeply insecure, craving validation from others, unsure of what gender identity she actually has or wants to have, and has processed some traumatic events in ways I’m not sure are healthy (read: they sound pretty unhealthy to me, but I don’t want to be overly confident about a stranger’s mental health either way.) And all these things, assuming that I’m reading her right, would be offputting and red-flaggy even to someone who was totally attracted to her body and gender presentation.

Please don’t think I’m slagging on her, or anyone, for being insecure and craving validation and everything else. I’ve been there… most of us have. I’m not saying those things make you a bad or unworthy person; I’m just saying they make you even more hampered in the dating department than you otherwise would be. Confidence is sexy; insecurity and neediness not so much. And someone who’s been through a couple of drama-charged relationships with people who don’t have their personal-identity-shit together yet is going to be justifiably wary of dating someone else who vibes that way. So if I had to guess, this girl’s struggles with finding a date are partly due to her having a smallish niche of people who would be interested in her, and partly due to broadcasting I HAVE ISSUES loudly enough to scare off the people she meets within that small niche.

What’s interesting to me is that she puts all her difficulty on the former: “nobody wants someone like me.” (Meaning, someone with my particular gender presentation.) She’s blamed it all on those tangible, physical things about her, mainly things that will not change or things that will only intensify as she matures. In my experience, this is terribly common. I know that ten years ago, when I though nobody wanted me and I was someone magically repellent to all boys, I blamed it on my average-sized (as opposed to skinny) figure, and my inability to giggle helplessly and bat my eyes. The same basic idea is at the heart of the Nice Guys™ who complain that women never want Nice Guys. Short men, tall women, and anybody who’s skinnier or fatter than the Cultural Ideal will, if they have a hard time getting a date, usually blame their bodies for this. In general, it seems to me, people will fix on some aspect of themselves that’s either unchangeable (height, personality, basic body type) or a virtue (intelligence, niceness) and blame their romantic difficulties entirely on this aspect.

When you look at it, it’s obvious this approach is counterproductive. Attributing your troubles to something that you either can’t or shouldn’t change just means that your troubles are unsolvable. If, instead, the problem is due to something in your manner, approach, or maturity level, that should be encouraging, since those are things you can change. Perversely, though, I think people find it more psychologically comfortable to blame the immutable. First of all, it means less work. There’s nothing you can do about it, so you needn’t bother to try. Second, it allows you to put the actual burden of guilt onto the entire body of people you’re attracted to (who aren’t attracted back, which in your head at this point is all of them.) When I thought the boys didn’t like me because I wasn’t skinny or vapid enough for them, what I was really doing was saying that all the boys had horrible taste. It was, at bottom, their fault for not being attracted to me, not my fault for being unattractive (in ways that had nothing to do with my intelligence or body type.) Personal growth is hard; self-righteous resentment is easy.

The truth is that if you look around, you will see plenty of happily partnered people with the immutable characteristics you blame for your own loneliness. The truth is that nearly every personal quality is attractive to somebody, and even more strikingly, people are often moved to abandon their usual “type” for someone who’s awesome in other ways. (Although fixating on a single person in hopes that this will happen is usually an exercise in futility. Please don’t try it.) Everybody’s attractions are somewhat fluid, and someone who generally liked size four blondes might someday find himself falling for a supremely confident and sexy size twelve brunette.

From my own experience, I can tell you that although my period of loneliness and insecurity was long and painful, I now receive a surplus of attention, and my body type and intelligence haven’t changed. What has changed? Well. I grew up a little. I got comfortable with sexuality (being acutely uncomfortable with sexuality makes you less sexually attractive… who knew?) I made decisions that made me feel confident and attractive, even if they went against conventions of what most people like (cutting my hair super-short was the big one.) It was a slow growth process, and hearing it will be slow is incredibly frustrating to somebody in the “nobody wants me” doldrums but in the end, I’m far better off having made that slow crawl than I’d be if I’d sat and pickled in my resentment. (Also unsexy: hating everybody you’re attracted to. MRAs and PUAs, I’m talking to you.)

There’s a lot more I could say on this subject, but I want to hear from you first: do you agree with my impression that unhappily dateless people are quicker to blame unchangeable or virtuous traits in themselves than things they can or should change? Have you been there in the past? Are you there now? What say you?